Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)
I have previously written on this blog about my admiration for hacks. Hacks are like session musicians: their job is to produce efficiently and effectively. And well. And often. Some of my heroes are hacks. Mark Twain was a hack. So was Chet Atkins.
Michael Crichton was in medical school when he wrote his first novels. Medical school. How he managed to write a single novel while in med school is beyond me—I can barely write my dissertation and that’s all I have to do. But he wrote them. Binary is the second that I personally have read. (Full disclosure: It’s also the second Crichton novel that I have ever read.) This was an enjoyable novel, plot and nothing more. Crichton shows expertise in pacing and suspense, moving the story along to a somewhat forgettable conclusion. But I enjoyed getting there.
Crichton's hackery, in other words, was evident even as a student.
The story: It’s 1972. Millionaire playboy and wannabe terrorist John Wright plots to kill President Nixon—and much of the population of San Diego—with VX nerve gas. John Graves is an intelligence agent out to stop him. They’re both unstable geniuses, so there’s a lot of outwitting and attempted outwitting at the heart of the story.
This is a humble novel, not promising more than what it can deliver, which was an enjoyable Sunday afternoon. There’s little character development, with Crichton cleverly slipping enough background information on the rivals at the center of Binary to give the story a bit of dramatic flavor. The book is mostly plot, each scene’s sole purpose being to move story forward. A couple of moments did feel forced and, in contrast with the rest of the book, wordy. Particularly the lecture on VX nerve gas—though I did learn something.
The writing here is largely economical, just enough description and dialogue to push through to the conclusion. Crichton’s age shows—he’s still learning here—but there’s also clear expertise and skill demonstrated throughout this book. Crichton had certainly developed his craft in the five years between Binary and Scratch One, which I reviewed here a few weeks back. Binary is also more than thirty pages shorter than the earlier novel. One point bonus. (But I’m penalizing the book one point for the villain’s erectile difficulty as the cause of his terrorist behavior. The vague John-Wright-is-mad-about-China thing didn’t really make sense, but still…)
And it should be noted that there were very few instances of actual violence in the story and only a handful of guns. Bravo.
Objective score: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 for very few guns; +1 for being only 220 pages
Penalities: -1 for impotence
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10